The pros and pros of 'citizen journalism'

Jason Stverak is President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a leading journalism non-profit organization. The Franklin Center is dedicated to providing reporters, citizens and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise and technical support. For more information on the Franklin Center please visit www.FranklinCenterHQ.org.

Gerry Storch quotes some people who miss the point in his Feb. 26 column, The pros and cons of newspapers partnering with ‘citizen journalism’ networks. Four sources who cited “The Negative” about citizen journalism do not understand what it truly is and does. Even the five professionals quoted for “The Positive” disparage the credibility and integrity of citizens who choose – as did those at the founding of our nation — to make journalism their chosen field and passion.

The point all of them miss is traditional news media reporters and editors are being devastated by a financial crisis, not a journalism crisis. Somebody has to fill the void.

Those of us who work with citizen journalists in online news ventures know better than anyone what a tough, disciplined calling it is. That is why we hire professionals and rigorously train citizens.

We also know the future is online. And online news produced by citizen journalists can toss traditional media the lifeline they so desperately need.

Face facts: Traditional media have put journalism last for at least a decade, cutting thousands of jobs and wondering why readers, viewers and listeners flee. America lost a generation of professional journalists. That is a serious threat to self-government. How will we replace them?

Reanimation of journalism arises in online news ventures. The blogosphere is no longer just for the ranters and ideologues. Increasingly, straight-shooting journalists cut from newsrooms join online non-profit ventures. There they get the opportunity to reemerge as hard-news reporters of yesteryear who investigate stories traditional media now cannot or will not cover.

By decentralizing the news business, investigative reporters for online non-profits are creating quality coverage of America’s most important issues and making it available to all.

The rise of online non-profit investigative journalism stems not only from the overall newsroom cuts around the nation, but also from the growing vacuum in state-based coverage. Many traditional newsrooms no longer have the staff or financial resources to send a reporter across town, let alone cross-country, to investigate a story.

For at least a decade, newspapers have curbed reporters’ ability to investigate major stories while producing daily beat copy to feed the beast. With the accelerating decline of professional investigative journalists at state-wide newspapers and television stations, how is corruption supposed to be exposed? Who is scrutinizing the mountain of public records and attending meetings? Who is developing sources and asking tough questions to expose fraud, corruption and waste?

Just recently, a series of state-based watchdog groups proved online news websites can churn out investigative pieces and breaking news stories. The effects of their reporting has impacted the entire nation.

  • An online journalist broke the “Phantom Congressional District” story about the chaos in tracking American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. On November 16, 2009, Jim Scarantino, the investigative reporter for New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation, discovered that the recovery.gov website listing federal stimulus money was riddled with ludicrous errors. His online story prompted other citizen journalists he had networked with through the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity to look into their own state’s recovery.gov data. When all was said and done, these online journalists found that $6.4 billion in stimulus funds had been awarded to 440 non-existent Congressional districts in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and four American territories.
  • It was an online journalist in New Hampshire who broke the news when Newt Gingrich admitted during an interview he made an endorsement mistake in a highly contested congressional race.
  • A Watchdog in Texas recently discovered that the Department of Homeland Security lost nearly 1,000 computers in 2008.
  • An online reporter in Minnesota got the attention of the state government when his organization, the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, released a report proving that Minnesotans were leaving the state due to high taxes.
  • And it was a reporter in Hawaii who delved into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pricey holiday trip, which included an astonishing $10,000 nightly expense and more than $21,000 in security cost to Hawaii’s taxpayers.

In addition to quality news coverage, many of these non-profit online news organization offer a “steal our stuff” policy that provides newspapers with free news. This is an obvious cost advantage over the traditional news wires that charge for content.

As more non-profit journalism organizations develop, and more online journalists emerge in cities around the nation, the traditional wire services will have stiff competition unless they deal with reality and start picking up the best work these journalists produce. Non-profit journalism organizations as well as citizen journalists are producing news that too often is overlooked by traditional media. Not all those who write online stories are journalists – yet – but the ones who are should get the same access and treatment as those few still employed by newspapers, television and radio.

At the end of the day, a partnership between newspapers and citizen journalism organizations will be beneficial not only for both, but also for Americans who will be better informed. That’s the point. It also is the mission.

If you are a reporter or a citizen journalist interested in getting involved in non-profit journalism, please email [email protected]

About Jason Stverak

Jason Stverak is President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a leading journalism non-profit organization. The Franklin Center is dedicated to providing reporters, citizens and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise and technical support.